Slower than Light

a novel in progress by C. W. Johnson

This is for the ones we leave behind

All rivers run to the sea; but the sea is not full.

Chapter 1

In the end, all rivers run to the sea.

Above me flows a river of stars. Beneath me sleeps a sea of ice. Standing between them on a razor-edge ridge I feel naked and exposed. In the sky the Milky Way splashes across the continent of night and slowly I scan it, listening to the rasp of my breath in my suit and looking for moving lights even though I could not possibly see the ships. They are not in this system yet and will not arrive for a month. Time enough to tell my story and to send the message crawling home at the speed of light.

All rivers run to the sea. That is the refrain I hum to myself, sa va a na di a sa mu dra ya pa ri sa na da na te. The syllables form a melody and a rhythm, as my uncle tried to teach me when I was a child. I hum the melody and tap out the rhythm on the flinty ice. Around me a shattered blue-white plain, which fills a huge impact crater a billion years old, glints in Zedeye's ruddy light. For months I have crossed and recrossed this plain of ice, chipping out steel-hard fragments. In the warmth of the lander the ice melts after dreaming for a million years and I sieve out dust. The glyph-motes are easy to spot. I have identified about seven thousand distinct motes and from the frequency I believe I have patched together eight-tenths of the message. Yet there is much I do not understand. Most of all the efti-el.

This moon orbits the fifth planet of the Zedeye' system, a patchwork world hardly bigger than this its moon. The planet is too small and the moon too far away to be tidally locked, so once every three days the planet rolls across the sky like a mottled piece of bone, with obsidian striations and soupy methane fogs, its only claim to an atmosphere, creeping through its valleys. In comparison this moon is pure with its sterile icy surface, pieced though it may be by the trajectory of the efti-el.

The efti-el will rise soon. I am at a safe distance from its trajectory; from the top of the ridge I cannot see the black gash two hundred kilometers away, near the edge of the crater, where the efti-el will rise. But all around I can see ridges snaking broken-backed across the plain, frozen convulsions induced up by the passage of the efti-el over a thousand millenia. The moon is riddled through and through by the tunneling of the efti-el through the moon, again and again, once a day for a billion days. The very ridge on which I stand was thrown up half a million years ago, the lander whispers in my ear, by the tectonic shudders induced by the efti-el. It also tells me I am in good position to observe the efti-el.

If it even is an efti-el.

You who receive this---are you travelers-far, or are you planetbound? I close my eyes and try to imagine you, but it is hard. I am alone in the universe, alone on this airless pebble of ice and rock. My only companion is the dim red glare of Zedeye as it traces its unblinking arc across the sky; right now it is about sixty degrees above the horizon, directly in line with the orbit of the efti-el. I wonder, do you sail in a brave, frail ship across vast and empty space, or do you inhabit a world with a thin film of air, sighing as it twirls about a yellow sun? In either case you are not alone; and in either case you probably heard the rumor of the efti-el.

I was living on Nadi, in the Suryasuava system, the edge of human space, when the message came over the deep network. It was only one of a million transmissions relayed tirelessly from star system to star system, patiently diffusing across our tiny corner of the galaxy at the tedious speed of light; one message and yet immense in its implications. The simple text had originated on the other side of human-colonized space, about four hundred and seventy light-years away, deep inside delphine territory. Our neutrino arrays intercepted a flash Yuren message which we have partially decoded, the five hundred year- old transmission began.

The Yuren, a delphine race common in that region, had found tumbling through space a message. (And here begins the problem that buzzes in my brain when I try to sleep. Call the original message, the one the delphines stumbled upon, message One. Call the Yuren signal, describing message One and intercepted by humans, message Two. Finally the human transmission sent out over the deep network, describing message Two, let me call message Three. You see? Translations within translations within translations; and on that basis I traveled five hundred trillion kilometers.) Message Three, a translation and compression of Two, suggested that suggested that message One was inscribed on an artifact, bringing to mind an image of some stony or metallic monument tumbling through space. That mistranslation---not even really a mistranslation but an oversight, a carelessness---did not strike me at first, not even when we learned about the glyph-motes. But the last few years it has been haunting me; now it gnaws at my heart. How much of message Three can I trust, or even Two? Is is an efti-el?

The Yuren message, Two, itself was as alien as all delphine transmissions. The first astonishing item was the mere fact of the Yuren discovering and deciphering what appeared to be message (One) from a race neither human nor delphine. Equally startling was the Yuren's nonchalance. During the ten or fifteen thousand years since humans left Home and sailed from star to star, the only spacefaring species we have encountered have been the ocean-born delphines; the delphines themselves argue about which of their dozen member races is the oldest--anywhere from a hundred thousand up to a million years old, they slyly hint---but their infrequent, oblique references to humans hint that they have found us anomalous, that nowhere in their deep past did they find another spacefaring race of any sort. But even they have explored only a small part of the galaxy, and their claims that delphine worlds must be scattered throughout the Milky Way are based on little more than speculative extrapolation from local trends: Delphines dominate the water-rich worlds in this part of the galaxy, therefore elsewhere in the galaxy.... Humans the delphines do their best to ignore, as long as we ignore the ocean worlds they claim. Even so, to blithely note without comment the existence of a new intelligent race astrounds me. The Yuren message, Two, summarized the physical hints as to the origin of the message One, in their oblique way, without mentioning the nature of the artifact carrying One itself. Travelling at fifty kilometers a second, fast enough to slip through the gravitational bonds of most stars, for over three million years, as suggested from radiation damage, the artifact--the glyph-motes--had drifted across over five hundred light-years. Message One must have contained information about it points of origin, about a red dwarf star, and its relation to nearby pulsars, and the icy, airless moon of the fifth planet. From their extensive interferometric maps the Yuren identified the obscure, uninhabited and unexplored Zedeye system.

And then, matter-of-fact, the Yuren message Two simply summarized the content of message One. How it was phrased, in One or even in Two I never learned, and I bitterly regret that loss. But the Yuren seemed sure of their interpretation, which was the most startling revelation of all.

On that moon of Zedeye Five, the Yuren believed, was an efti-el.

I thought the efti-el promised everything. But now I have had almost everything stripped away from me---I alone escaped to tell you this story---and soon I too shall reach the final, sundering sea.

Waiting for the efti-el, I look at the shimmering, starry backdrop of the galaxy, trying to pick out Suryasuava and Stjarna-alska and all the other star systems I have visited. I think about those stars and their planets and all the people on those planets, my mother and my brother and my uncle and Isya and Heisu and Martei and all the other left behind. And the sadness runs through me like a flood. My breath is short and my legs, my legs feel weak, I am so alone beneath a terrible empty sky, it will sweep me away, I must not think on it---.

Breathe. Breathe, I tell myself. Sa va a na di a sa mu dra ya pa ri sa na da na te.... My pulse slows and my breath is regular but still I feel a yearning at the back of my heart. Staring at the gouged, airless surface of this moon that void, that yearning, takes shape, stretches out across all that I knew and all that I have lost, and bubbling up out of all that I miss is the desire to see again a river. Crouching down I half-close my eyes and reach out with a hand to steady myself on the ice and I am reaching for that river. So many rivers have I seen; so many rivers have I crossed; but I think there is one river. Still, to see any river would heal me. It has been nearly eight years since I last saw a river; eight of my years and fifty, perhaps, of yours, although by the time this is received--- Everything has been stripped away and all I have now is memory. What I remember is this: sitting on a riverbank, on the riverbank, listening to the murmur of the water and watching the flickering pewter light on the waves; the lure of the current carried me downstream, inexorably, to broad, slow bends, and the quiet spreading of a delta; and there begins the sea. I remember sitting on the coarse sod on that low riverbank and wanting to follow the river to its end, where I could watch the waters marry. Where the river meets the sea there is a peace, cool and embracing, and as I sat hypnotized by the sound and the light I longed for that peace and I yearned for those waters to dissolve the sadness inside me. A splash in the middle of the river shattered my reverie and for an instant I thought I saw a dolphin swimming upstream, and my heart started pounding. But it was only a wave breaking over a rock. I have never seen a dolphin.

Then I looked upstream and I wished I could find the source of the river and know its whole length. Where the river ends is easy to find. But every river begins in a hundred tributaries, and which is the one true source? That is the question that I ask myself now. Even though the efti-el should be the focus of my questions the answers are just out of reach and I find myself thinking about the efti-el less and less each day. Instead I tell myself stories, one of the bundle of stories that is my life, like I am telling you this story, and I think about that story's beginning and ending. All stories are like a river. This story is a river. I know where it ends. But where does it begin?

Many people thought an efti-el was a myth, was impossible. In particular I , who had actually crawled from star to star at just below the speed of light, found it hard to put my mind around the concept. But I also could understand, more fully than you who are planetbound, what it would mean.

It would be like the discovery of fire.

When we travel between the stars at just below the speed of light we lose something of the present. There is the distant past: the Universe exploded into being; clouds of gas coelesced into stars; our ancestors left Home. There is the distant future: stars die; the Universe collapses and renews itself. But in between, only mist. Consider this: when I lived on Nadi I did not know, and still do not know, if my brother and all the rest were alive or dead. Even to ask such a question would be meaningless. The shackles of the speed of light deny simultaneity. Now does not exist; not across the vast distances of space, at least. And so it had been since the beginning of history, since we left Home. But with the efti-el, that would all change. It could heal the now. No longer would it take years of subjective time, and decades of galactic time, to travel between stars as just below the speed of light. No longer would the beginning of every journey mean a final farewell.

The ancient impact crater is filled with ice frozen as hard as steel, a glaring white eye on this moon, the ice scarred from thousands of tracks from the shifting orbit of the efti-el. The glyph-motes were not constructed for the makers of the efti-el, but for a race who served them. I do not know their nature. But the motes were falling here when--- although when does not really exist---when my ancestors were dragging clubs of animal femurs across grassy savannas on Home and dipping their fingers for the first time into the great salty ocean. Still, I do not know the whole story, do not know its beginning. The efti-el is about to rise, the lander informs me. And then it does.

It is an awesome sight, one I would not be able to see from here but for the enhancement of my suit. The black mass of the efti-el, marked only by a faint violet halo, rockets up and out of the heart of the moon in a great silent fountain of ice and rock, etching a feathery white spray against the fuliginous drapery of the sky. As the efti-el rises my suit traces its path, a great arc that will intersect with Zedeye. I stand still, even though the suit can compensate for my motion. A minute later the efti-el transits Zedeye and I see the ruddy light flicker and twist. And then the efti-el continues on its orbit around and through the moon.

My suit instantly passes the visual over the link to the lander; from the distortion the lander calculates that the mass of the efti-el is much less than one would expect from all its passes through the moon. But then, the efti-el---or whatever it is---is not a true singularity. I have learned that much. It is a four-knot in a deep level of the universe, so many generations of particles and forces down that even the concept of dimensionality does not apply. Its interactions with the surface of the Universe, our ordinary space and time and quarks and leptons, distort the usual rules of geometry, so that with time tidal distortions enhances rather than decreases the ellipticity of the orbit.

I have been here ten months. I have patiently deciphered the motes and uncovered fragments of knowledge about the efti-el. I even think I know how to activate the efti-el, especially now that I know its mass. But I do not understand much else about the efti-el. I am not even sure what would happen if I activated the efti-el, if it really is the efti-el I seek, and where it would take me. Could it take me back to a human-colonized world? I have the pieces of the puzzle and am trying to put them together. The answer floats in front of me, taunting me, but I can only glimpse it with peripheral vision. When I reach for it, it vanishes. But as I fall asleep sleep the glyph-motes dances across the hypnagogic horizon and a chain of numbers undulate whispering to me. I try to understand the meaning of the numbers. Some are very large: twenty-five thousand light years. Five hundred trillion kilometers. Sixty years. Some are very small. Four. Two. Three. One. Seven. One. Three. One. Two. One. And the rhythm goes on. In the hypnagogic state I roll the bones and try to read what they mean. But the bones have no meaning and the numbers have no meaning except what we give to them. The stories we see in them are our own stories, every one of them. I keep coming back to my story, because it is the only story I know.

I hope that by reconstructing my own story I might be able to understand the story of the efti-el.

The efti-el is high above me now, crossing the Milky Way, and the river of stars in the sky above twinkles as it glides past. I think of their stories, the stars, and their beginnings and endings. One of the beginnings of my story is the end of a star: I am made from the ashes of a long dead star, you see, and so are you. Above me the stars looks so bright and close. I can not touch them. They are distant and ephemeral. They will die, and out of their ends will come a new beginning.

And, still, in my memories, when I think of beginnings, I think of that bank on the river; and before that, Martei.

Copyright 1998 Calvin W. Johnson. Do not reproduce or quote in any form.

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